Message from Steve Wyler – Chief Executive of Locality
At least Emma Harrison has had the decency to resign. Last week it was reported that A4e, the welfare-to-work company she set up, one of the prime contractors for the Work Programme, was being investigated for fraud. It also came out that, over the last year, she had paid herself a dividend of £8.6m. So she resigned, first as David Cameron’s ‘families champion’, and then as Chairman of A4e.
I’ve nothing against Emma Harrison personally. I met her only once, briefly, at a reception in Number 10 to launch the Big Society Network, one of the most awful events I have ever attended. It was packed with ‘year-zero’ Big Society zealots who denounced everyone except themselves as the ‘usual suspects’. And there were plenty of ‘social entrepreneurs’ like Emma Harrison.
What an interesting term, social entrepreneur! It used to mean the kind of people I come across every day in the Locality movement, people who use entrepreneurial and creative skills to build viable businesses, against the odds, in low-income communities. But they don’t set up these businesses to make themselves or shareholders rich. They set them up to put something back into the communities they care about, to create a wider prosperity.
In the last few years, a different version has been gaining ascendency. Social entrepreneurs of the future, I am told, will operate as private companies. Yes, if they are successful their founders will earn a lot of money, but why not, if they do social good? High-growth, large scale businesses do require private investment and private return, and if they can operate at a bigger scale, then surely the social benefit will be bigger too? The business model used by members of Locality, they say, will condemn our movement to the periphery, and our social impacts will always be marginal.
Now, I do accept that more private companies are positioning themselves as ‘social purpose companies’ like A4e. They can see the potential to increase staff motivation, to win government contracts, to attract consumers to buy products. And I don’t think this is a bad thing in itself. But I do think it is wrong to pretend there is no downside. It is wrong to avoid the uncomfortable truth that appearances can so easily become more important than reality. And it is wrong to pretend that a culture of greed at the top will not in the end contaminate the whole operation.
So, thank you A4e for demonstrating so publically what is so wrong about the prime-contracting model. My real quarrel is not with Emma Harrison, but rather with those who have blurred the idea of social entrepreneurship to allow people like you to prosper, and above all with the DWP Minister Chris Grayling, who is quite content to see Work Programme boosting the profits of private companies, while driving frontline community providers out of business. Sadly, I suspect he won’t be resigning any time soon.
Hope your week works out well.
Chief Executive, Locality